Greetings, pop culture lovers! In case anyone is wondering who I am or what I am doing here, I’ll start with a bit of an introduction. My name is Devin R. Bruce, and I’m a speech pathologist, a cappella singer, podcaster, writer, and pop culture fan. Since March of 2014 I have been writing This Column Has Seven Days, a pop culture roundup where I talk about the best or most interesting of my pop culture samplings of the week. When my friends at Variant Edition offered me the opportunity to write for their blog, I jumped at the chance; I packed up my bindle, swallowed my last spoonful of beans, hopped a train to set up shop over here.
In This Column Has Seven Days, I like to share the best of my pop culture week. However, this isn’t just going to be a comics column. In fact, there are probably going to be times where I don’t mention comics at all. I saturate myself in many different pop culture pools: comics, music, movies, books, television, standup comedy, podcasts, and sometimes games and even old time radio programs. If I turn one person on to something they might not have tried, then my efforts have all been worth it. If not…well, then I got to rant and rave about things that I like, so that’s also worth it, really. Now that I have the introductions out of the way: let’s get to the good stuff.
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JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice
Lately I’ve been revisiting my collections of the mid-90s JLA series from DC Comics. I was thinking that they might be good fodder for this column, but I’ve had a hard time finding a foothold on the series, as epic and grand as it can get at times. So I revisited my bookshelf looking for something that I could really get a hold of, and that’s where JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice came along. Written by David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns and published in 2002, this original graphic novel is an excellent example of how good DC superhero comics could be at the turn of the century. It’s an update of the classic Justice League/Justice Society team-ups from the 1970s, with a few extra twists to hold the attention of the modern audience.
The book starts with members of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America gathering in the JLA watchtower (on the moon, naturally) for their semi-annual Thanksgiving dinner and get-together. Because this is a superhero book, though, it’s not 90 pages of Dr. Mid-Nite carving the turkey and Wonder Woman dishing out candied yams. Superman and Sentinel respond to a distress call in Tanzania, where Doctor Bedlam is attacking the U.S. President. (That’s President Lex Luthor, by the way; for those who never read DC Comics in the 90s, it was a strange and wonderful time to be a superhero fan.) Bedlam’s no slouch, but he’s no match the combined forces of the JLA and the JSA, and after a quick skirmish the heroes return to their dinner party.
And that’s when things take a turn. Seven of the heroes — Captain Marvel, Power Girl, Plastic Man, Dr. Fate, Mr. Terrific, Batman, and Green Lantern — start behaving strangely. Without warning they turn on their allies, taking most of them off the board, then rush off to wreak havoc on Earth. For the rest of the comic the remaining heroes work at solving the mystery of their teammates’ change of heart while attempting to survive impossible odds. Goyer and Johns put together a fun story, with many well-earned and satisfying reveals that are significant hat-tips to previous JLA or JSA stories but are also satisfying for even a casual DC reader. I always enjoy watching superheroes fight each other, but the reasons they do so in this story are particularly smart. The scope of the adventure, from the different fields of battle to the reveal of just who is behind all of this, makes JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice feel like a really special and important story in the lives of these characters.
The real star of the book is the art. Carlos Pacheco’s pencils? Good god. I had never seen anything quite like his work on this book before, and it’s still my favourite thing he’s ever done. That might have a lot to do with the assured linework of inker Jesus Merino and strong but tasteful colours from Guy Major. All the heroes look like the beautiful paragons of humanity they should be, and yet the artists make the JSA old guard look old by adding length, line, and angle to their faces (something other artists hope that a squint or a smattering of grey in the hair will do). The action isn’t frenetic but there’s an assured power behind every move and pose; whenever a punch is thrown or a body slammed, there’s a solidity to the impact. The strength of the fighters, the grace of the acrobats, it’s all captured and presented with style. And the scenes where they’re just allowed to be people have real weight to them too, again thanks to the art. When Mr. Terrific and Batman share quiet smiles during a moment of understanding, it made me smile as well, and when Superman and Sentinel stand guard over the Earth, the slight differences in their facial expressions and the slight tilt on the Earth’s axis are small touches that make a world of difference.
This book is also what first sold me on the Justice Society it. Aside from a brief appearance in Grant Morrison’s JLA storyline “Crisis Times Five,” the most exposure I’d ever had to the JSA was when I played their figures during HeroClix games back in the early 200s. They seemed like interesting characters, but it wasn’t until I’d read them in this book that I really felt like I understood them. Especially the three longest-lasting JSA characters, the old guard of Sentinel, the Jay Garrick Flash, and Wildcat. The way their characters were presented, and the respect given to them by every other character in the book, really struck a chord with me, and it made them all sentimental favourites. All three of those characters easily make the shortlist for my favourite superheroes of all time, and this book is a big reason for that. Then there are the legacy versions of Doctor Mid-Nite, Hourman, and Mr. Terrific, who got just enough face time in this book to make me want to read more. It’s hard to balance over two dozen main characters in a single story, and some of them get a little bit of a short shrift (including, sadly, Wonder Woman), but this book presented me with a group of characters I’d never really read and made such a strong impression that I had to read more about them. That in and of itself would be a good enough reason for me to recommend JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice. The fact that the art is equally as spectacular is not just icing on the cake, it’s an entire additional cake.
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It wasn’t all cross-generational superheroics in my world this week. One more thing really grabbed my attention this week. It’s a short snippet of a review but don’t let that make you think that I liked it any less than superhero fights. Because frankly, I think I’m in love.
Music: It’s about two years late but I am in love with Frank Ocean’s 2012 release channel ORANGE. It’s an amazing modern R&B album with incredible depth, both in terms of feeling and of musical influence. The musicality, sensuality, and emotion immediately remind me of Marvin Gaye — and I love Marvin Gaye, so that’s really high praise. There are other musical influences too, from psychedelic funk, pop, jazz, and hip-hop. There are many different layers to the tracks on the album, some of which are little more than a drum loop and some synth chords, while others have a traditional rock combo and an organ, and yet others a rich-sounding string section. Thematically, channel ORANGE covers a number of bases; love, drugs, decadence, injustice, faith, and passion. Oh, yes, make no mistake: there are some incredibly sexy tracks on this album, like “Thinkin Bout You,” a song that made me literally sit up and pay attention when I first heard it. Ocean and partner Malay have put together an album that can just wash over a listener, but I like it more when I pay attention. Sensual, smart, and soulful, channel ORANGE gets my highest possible recommendation.
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That’s all for me this week, friends. Until next time, try to figure out a way to have your superhero cake and eat it too. I’ll see you in seven days.